I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s an extra Insanity Section in the Highway Code that all Colombian bus drivers have to pass before they’re granted a license to transport people from place to place. Exercises include overtaking at high speed on blind corners, not slowing down for hazards until the last possible second and saving wear and tear on the brake pads by substituting braking for excessive horn use. The driver that took me from Cartagena to Magangué would have excelled in all departments and come top of his class. I made a mental note to have my nerves reinforced with steel and to pack a change of underwear in my hand luggage before the next bus ride.
The South America Lonely Planet describes the journey from Cartagena to Bucaramanga as Colombia’s best journey, a two day effort stopping overnight in a little place called Mompós so I thought I might as well give it a go. Even though I was on a mission to get to Peru I thought I might as well enjoy the journey which is how I ended up on the roller coaster ride to what I thought was going to be Magangué where I could get a boat to Botega then a colectivo to Mompós. Turns out the bus was going nowhere near it and I was dropped in god knows where and loaded into a minivan then off we went on the couple of hours journey to Magangué with the side door wide open and not a seat belt in sight. It makes you realise how we take basic safety for granted in the West. I mean, it was fine, but you would never, ever see that happen in a first world country. I kinda liked it here for that reason, though.
I managed to get some sleep as we wound our way to our destination until we were dropped in the town and I asked if there was a river nearby. The guy looked at me as if I was as nuts as a bus driver and told me no. Hmm. I knew there was a body of water here somewhere so I figured it was just my crap Spanish and got him to point me in the direction of the bus terminal where there would easily be someone who could help, even if it was for a small tip. There was. I was led to the boats and bundled onto one of them to Botega where I easily found a colectivo and finally made it to Mompós, late, tired, totally bemused but in one piece. I checked into La Casa Amarilla and figured a couple of nights here wouldn’t hurt, so I could at least check out the town the next day.
Ok, so, I figure that maybe Mompós is so sleepy because it’s such an epic mission to get there that all you’ll want to do is sooth your shattered nerves and take it easy in a rocking chair of which there is an abundance. In fact, during the afternoon and early evening, every fourth doorway has a couple or a family sat outside, rocking away in their chairs. It’s definitely tempting but apparently every mosquito in the world also likes to head to here to relax and feast on the gringos of which I seemed to be the only one in town. Entire squadrons of the bloodsuckers attack you en masse, you’ll look down and there’ll be an army of them with their faces embedded in your legs attempting to remove a couple of litres. I felt pretty low down the food chain.
Another thing I noticed is that Mompós actually seems to be spelt Mompóx which just makes it sound like it should be under quarantine. I wonder if I’ve been vaccinated against Mompóx. Anyway, one full day here is more than enough so I booked a 5am 4WD out of here for the morning to head to El Banco where I could pick up a bus to Bucaramanga.
The next day I forced myself out of bed at stupid o’ clock in the morning and fought the hoards of mozzies to get to reception where I waited with the night shift guy for my jeep. It got to 5am but I guessed it’d be 5am Colombian time which could mean anything up until 5.45am. I waited until I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up I was told there was a problem with the jeep and I wouldn’t be able to head in that direction until the following day. Hmm. So. I could head back the way I came or I could just go back to bed… It was afternoon by the time I woke up again. But I seriously had to leave the next day, this place was pretty but shit it was dull, I’d already decided to head back to Magangué and get a bus to Medellín from there on account of the fact it didn’t involve getting up while it was still dark.
Now, they have things over here called mototaxis which are motorbikes that are also taxis. They’re very useful in towns and cities for getting around quickly but for some reason, which I’ve still to ascertain, I decided to sacrifice comfort for what I thought might be fun and instead of getting a four wheeled effort to Botega, I jumped on the back of one of these aforementioned mototaxis with my 16kg big pack on my back and my 12kg smaller bag on my left shoulder which I held onto with my left hand, leaving my right hand free to hold onto the back of the bike should I so need to. I needed to.
The road for the most part is unsealed and the parts that are tarmacked have holes in them bigger than Mars. Neither of us had helmets on as he weaved across the road in an effort to avoid potholes, dogs, cows, pigs, and oncoming traffic trying to avoid the same. I don’t mind admitting, I was a bit scared. Every time he bounced over a speed hump my big bag fell off my right shoulder, putting all the weight of that plus my small bag on my left (it’s left a rather fetching bruise and it broke the skin where my bra strap was. I’ll be picking at that scab for weeks) and I couldn’t let go to adjust it until we were on what passed for smooth road around here. At one point his phone rang. “I’ll laugh if he answers it,” I thought.
He answered it. I didn’t laugh. My teeth and my buttocks were involved in some kind of synchronised clenching display as we weaved along for about 45 minutes until we finally arrived at the boats where there were people to help me off the bike, take my bags and lead me to the boat. All of which I could usually do myself if I wasn’t so focused on trying to prise my right hand from the rail at the back of the bike and get some colour back into my knuckles other than white.
But the boat ride would be fine, right? No worries there, yeah? No. We were only a few minutes into the journey when the guys at the back started shouting and the driver stopped. I tried to work out what was going on as a couple of panicked looking girls in the middle put their life jackets on and fastened them, a few of the bigger men shifted to the front of the boat and the guy at the back who had shouted… what was he doing…? Ah shit. The boat had taken on a shit load of water because it was too back-heavy and he was bailing it out. For fucks sake. I’m sorry, Mompós, as pretty as you are I shall be billing you for my post traumatic stress therapy.
Despite the initial fears of sinking, the boat did remain on the surface of the water for the duration and I made my way back to the bus terminal to book my bus to Medellín which had A/C to rival Venezuela’s attempt to recreate the Arctic. Despite the threat of the loss of an extremity or two to frostbite, at least that journey was uneventful. I took no chances at the other end and climbed into a taxi with a whole four wheels to take me to the hostel.
Mompós / Mompox, Bolívar, Colombia
Stayed at: La Casa Amarilla